Browsing the picture book shelves of bookstores was once extremely depressing. There were "girl" books and "boy" books, the girl ones covered in glitter, pastels, pinks and bunnies, the boys crammed with planes, trains, and brave young adventurers. However, increasingly, picture books are becoming feminist, androgynous, open-minded, even radical: from simple depictions of gay parenthood to the thoroughly charming 10,000 Dresses starring a trans girl named Bailey, the children's section is pushing the boundaries.
Plucky female heroines aren't new to children's literature. Jo March in Little Women led the charge, and Pippi Longstocking, Katy in What Katy Did and even the occasionally-aggravating Anne of Green Gables kept her company, doing precisely what they wanted and causing havoc along the way. (The idea of "girl doing whatever she damn well likes" is still a pretty revolutionary one, as you'll see from the list.) However, today's feminist picture books are stepping outside the female-challenges-norms-learns-valuable-lessons mold. They're full of diversity, rife with real-world stories, and celebrate all kinds of skills, futures, and ambitions — from flying to welding.
There are, of course, still trends. The narrative of a young person whose gifts aren't understood until they're needed to save the town is a strong presence. Women still start out as princess rather a lot, even if they end up as pirates or swashbucklers. Girls who are shy rather than loudly brash only show up rarely. Sometimes books can go too far and bash feminine, pretty girls, which isn't really the point of feminism at all. But, on the whole, these are 22 picture books that celebrate female smarts, ingenuity, and limitless possibilities. Get them for every little girl you know, or just for yourself.
Madeline , Ludwig Bemelmans
She's 77 this year, but Madeline — who was based on Ludwig himself — is still one of the pluckiest girls in literature. She's completely fearless in the face of snow, ice or tigers at the zoo (to whom, of course, she says Pooh pooh!), and is brave even when she needs an appendix operation — and she's proud of her scar. (Did you know that she's not an orphan, or that she's American, or that Miss Clavel isn't a nun? Mind blown.)
The Paper Bag Princess , Robert Munsch & Michael Martchenko
One of the originals, and the best. A princess starts out fairly traditional — in pretty clothes, wanting to marry her prince — but, after a series of disasters involving a dragon, is called on to rescue said useless prince while wearing a paper bag, and he's less than appreciative. So [spoiler] she tells him to get stuffed, and goes her own way.
Grace For President , Kelly S. DiPucchio & LeUyen Pham
A picture book about explaining the electoral college system? Sounds incredibly boring — but Grace, a primary school girl of color who can't believe there's never been a female President and decides the job's for her, is a great heroine, particularly when she has to fight lazy, entitled boys to the top.
Piggybook , Anthony Browne
This is a feminist book about mothers themselves, rather than brave small girls. A mother cooks, cleans, and does every household drudgery for her piggish sons and husband, until one day she refuses — and goes to fix the car instead.
Me ... Jane , Patrick McDonnell
This is a delicately illustrated book about the life of Dame Jane Goodall, the great anthropologist and protector of chimpanzees, and one of the best scientists of the past century, female or not. It's plain wish fulfillment: a childhood filled with dreams about helping animals ends with her dream coming true.
I Want To Be A Cowgirl , Jeanne Willis & Tony Ross
A girl growing up in a glamorous, sophisticated city doesn't understand why she has to be pretty, refined or behave like a "good girl" at tea parties. She wants to be a cowgirl, and damned if she doesn't steal a cowboy hat from her dad and make the world her prairie.
Princess Smartypants , Babette Cole
Another iteration of the "quirky princess" idea, but the princess in question is amazing: she rides a motorbike, wants to be a Ms. all her life, dances 'till dawn, and refuses to get married. But her parents insist, so she sets all of her (hilariously wimpy) suitors ridiculous tasks, and when one proves persistent, she turns him into a toad.
Amazing Grace , Mary Hoffman & Caroline Binch
Grace wants to be the lead in her school play — but it's Peter Pan, and, as her classmates remind her, she's a girl, and a girl of color at that. Luckily, her mother and grandmother remind her that she can be whatever she wants to be. Cue a stunning performance as Peter, and a seriously lovely book.
Pirate Girl , Cornelia Funke & Kerstin Meyer
This one starts in a familiar vein: a pretty young girl is kidnapped by dastardly pirates, and must use her wit and bravery to get herself free. However, it veers into new territory when it turns out that she's actually a Pirate Girl, and her mother is the take-no-prisoners captain of an all-female pirate crew. Girl-power chaos ensues.
Amelia to Zora: Twenty-Six Women Who Changed The World , Cynthia Chin-Lee & Megan Hasley
If you prefer your feminist heroines a bit less fictionalized, this alphabetical picture book with potted biographies of powerful ladies, from artist Frida Kahlo to computer genius Grace Hopper, is for you.
Dangerously Ever After , Dashka Slater & Valeria Docampo
Yes, another princess-who's-different story, but this one goes way beyond the norm. The princess in question is a veritable Wednesday Addams, obsessed with poisoned mushrooms, weapons, explosions, and all varieties of the creepy and crawly. Great for ghoulish little girls.
Violet the Pilot , Steve Breen
Violet is an inventor rather than a pilot per se; she's seen as "different" because she spends her time producing well-intentioned but often disastrous inventions. The pilot part comes in when she builds her own plane to win a local Air Show (!) and then has to perform an unexpected rescue in front of her whole town (!!).
Tía Isa Wants A Car , Meg Medina & Claudio Munoz
A young Hispanic girl's tía , Isa, wants to buy a car — but can't afford it, because she sends all her savings back home to her relatives. There's a male naysayer, in the form of Tío Andres, who laughs at the whole idea, but Isa's niece is determined to help. And, of course, there's a plucky ending where the girls' determination triumphs over every obstacle.
Mirette On the High Wire , Emily McCully
I had this as a kid, and warn you now that it may induce fearless girls to go try a high-wire act on the washing line. Mirette, a young girl in 19th-century Paris, learns to walk on a wire from an ex-circus performer, and her bravery ends up inspiring everybody (though the real stars are the beautiful illustrations of Paris and Mirette's amazing flame-red hair).
Flossie And The Fox , Patricia McKissack & Rachel Isadora
Folk tales can often pair off girls into "good" and "bad" — the sisters versus sickly-sweet Cinderella, for example — but this one from the American South relies entirely on young Flossie's smarts. Tasked with taking eggs through a forest, she cannily challenges a fox who ambushes her to prove that he's really a fox.
Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors? , Tanya Lee Stone & Marjorie Priceman
Don't shy away from a biographical picture book, particularly not this one, which tells the life story of the amazing and plucky Elizabeth Blackwell, the first qualified female doctor in England. And even though Elizabeth faced some pretty horrendous challenges (nobody would hire her, and when she put up her first shingle on a building all the other tenants moved out), it's positive and has a happy ending.
Not All Princesses Dress In Pink , Jane Yolen & Heidi E.Y. Stemple
Oh, good, more princesses — but this rhyming book is a celebration of diversity. Note the "not ALL" element of the title: princesses are perfectly free to dress in pink, have tea parties and love their sparkly crowns, but they can also do just about anything else. That inclusiveness is often absent from anti-princess picture books, so this one has a special place on the shelf.
A Girl Named Dan , Dandi Daley Mackall & Renee Graef
A slightly heartbreaking true story set in the early 1960s, the "girl named Dan" of the title is author Dandi Mackall herself. In love with baseball, she wrote into a competition to become the batboy of the Kansas City A's, her favorite team. She won — but the team wasn't at all happy to find out that "Dan" was really a girl.
The Wolves In The Walls, Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean
Neil Gaiman has a great history of strong female heroines, but the plucky little girl in the surreal Wolves In The Walls is one of the best. Everybody ignores her warnings about said wolves until it's too late, and then she has to be the one to save the day. Of course.
Every-Day Dress-Up , Selina Alko
Behind its very ordinary title is a picture book about a girl who's gone beyond princesses in her dress-up box to the costumes of great heroines in history, from warrior queens to Ella Fitzgerald and Sonia Sotomayor. It also comes with paper dolls to do a bit of historical dress-up yourself.
Sky High: The True Story Of Maggie Gee , Marissa Moss & Carl Angel
Here's a pilot story unlike any other: the true story of Maggie Gee, the Chinese American female pilot who was one of only two to serve in WWII. The twist? It's told by Maggie herself, who gave many interviews to the author and allowed her family's pictures to be placed in the back. The book is beautifully illustrated, but beware that some of Gee's flying missions are too frightening for very little kids.
You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! , Shana Corey & Chesley McLaren
The elaborately illustrated history of the life of Amelia Bloomer, the women's activist of the same name who invented trousers for women in the late 19th century, is great. The only problem? Bloomer calls other women of the era, the "proper ladies," "silly," and the book makes them out to be simpering, ridiculous, frill-covered lace monsters. Maybe start a conversation with your miniature Amelia about whether this is OK or not.
Rosie Revere, Engineer , Andrea Beaty & David Roberts
Rosie Revere is a brilliant but incredibly shy engineer, using odds and ends to create huge, ridiculous machines. The story doesn't actually revolve around how revolutionary this is, but about Rosie's attitude to failure; the fact that she's a girl is a minor detail.